The Basics of Action and Economics
You’ve heard of Odysseus, right? Trojan War, came up with the Trojan Horse idea, got lost in the Mediterranean Sea for 10 years, almost turned into a pig by a witch, almost eaten by a cyclops. You, know: that guy. The ancient Greeks called his island-hopping adventure “The Odyssey,” and a poet named Homer wrote a long poem about it.
Well you probably heard that he finally made it home, kissed his wife, took care of his wife’s wannabe boyfriends, and lived the rest of his life as a king. Well you heard wrong.
Because there was one island Homer didn’t tell you about: the last island he reached on his way back home. By then, all of his men had been eaten, or turned into bacon, or both. He was alone on his ship as he approached the island, when it crashed into a reef and began to sink. As the ship rocked, Odysseus was thrown against a wall, head-first. Then he fell overboard.
Far away, on Mount Olympus, the home of the gods, two goddesses were watching this all happen in a great big silver dish of water. One was delighted, because she hated Odysseus. She was called Hera, queen of the gods. The other was frantic, because she loved Odysseus like a son. Her name was Athena, goddess of wisdom.
“Looks like your little pet is going to drown, dear Athena,” taunted Hera.
“Not if I can help it,” said Athena, magically dissolving into thin air.
“Odysseus, Odysseus.” He heard his name, as if in the distance; his mind painfully waking up. He was shocked to realize he was underwater, and even more shocked to see a woman in full armor in front of him, standing as if on solid ground. “You must swim if want to survive.” Her mouth did not move, and he heard her words in his head.
He knew he had heard all those individual words before, but for some reason he could not understand the sentence they were forming.
“You have struck your head and cannot think clearly. I must teach you how to think about action, so you can better act. First I’m going to slow down your body, so you don’t drown as fast. Now, is anything wrong?”
“I can’t breath,” he thought. And Athena heard him.
That is a felt uneasiness. Something about the world is not perfect, and could be made better. What do you want?”
“I want to breathe!” he mentally shouted.
“That is your goal. That is your end. What can you do to pursue your goal? What can you do to pursue your end?”
“If you do something to pursue an end, that is an action. Look over at that wooden statue that also fell into the water. The statue is going up. Is that an action?”
“No! It doesn’t want to breathe. No goal. No end. Just floating!”
“If you go up now, will that be an action?”
“Yes, going up to breathe!”
“What will it take for you to go up?”
“I need my arms and hands, legs and feet!”
“Those are your means. A means is anything you use to pursue an end. How can you use your arms and legs to go up?”
“I need to push and kick the water.”
“That is a method. A method is the way you use a means to pursue an end. Is anything else wrong?”
“Big splinter in my foot. Hurts!”
“Would you like to relieve the pain now?”
“Then that is another end. What action could you take to relieve the pain now?”
“Take out the splinter!”
“What means would you need to use to do that?”
“My arms and hands, legs and feet!”
“But aren’t those also the means you need to use to pursue the end of not drowning?”
“Do you have enough hands and feet to swim and take out the splinter at the same time?”
“No, big problem!”
“You don’t have enough of your means to pursue all of your ends. That is to say your means are scarce. You have to deal with scarcity. As resources, your arms and legs are scarce. That means there aren’t enough of them to do everything you’d like to do with them.”
“Not enough of me to go around!”
“That means you are going to either put your arms and legs to work pursue breathing, or to pursue relieving pain. Whenever you direct means toward some ends, and hold them back from other ends, that is called economizing.You need to economize your arms and legs: direct them either toward swimming or removing the splinter.”
“Can’t do both!”
“That means you have to make a choice between two ends. Either: (A) swim to breathe, and keep feeling pain for a while or (B) remove the splinter to stop feeling pain now, and drown.
“I choose A!”
“Because you choose A over B, we can say that breathing has higher value to you than relieving pain now. A is ranked above B in value when it comes to deciding what to do with your arms and legs. By choosing end A, you are giving up end B. An end that you give up for the sake of another is an an opportunity cost. Swimming to breathe is costing you the opportunity to relieve your pain now.”
“It’s worth it!”
“Okay, then, act!”
Athena having helped him recover his reason, Odysseus looked up at his goal with determination, started pumping his arms and legs, rose to the surface and finally take a big gulp of air.
After the first gulp, Odysseus suddenly looked startled, as if he just thought of something. Then he started taking really small, quick breaths. Once again, Athena was right there.
“Why are you breathing like that?
“I don’t want to use up all the air. I might need some later!”
“Are there any other ends you’d like to use air to pursue?”
“Hopefully I can put together a little sailboat out of the wreckage out here. Then I can use the air to sail to the island.”
“Do you have enough air to both breathe and sail to the island?”
“Do you have enough air to pursue every possible end that you might have in your whole life?”
“Actually, yes, that’s right, I do.”
“So do you need to economize the air? Do you need to worry about using only a certain amount for breathing now, a certain amount for sailing, and a certain amount for breathing later?”
“No, you’re right. That doesn’t make any sense. I don’t need to economize the air. It doesn’t matter how much I use for what; there will still be plenty left over.”
“So you don’t have to choose between the ends of breathing and sailing to the island, ranking one over the other?”
“No. And so I don’t end up treating one end as having higher value than the other.”
“If you keep breathing, that doesn’t cost you the opportunity to sail to the island?”
“No. And if I sail to the island that doesn’t cost me the opportunity to breathe later. I won’t be giving up any ends by breathing. Breathing the air has no opportunity cost.”
“Is the air scarce?”
“No. I don’t need to economize it; I don’t need to make choices over its use; I don’t need to worry about which uses are more valuable to me; and I don’t suffer any costs when I use it. Air is not scarce!”
“Phew!” said the relieved Odysseus, before taking another nice, deep breath.
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